Monday, August 13, 2007

Literary Criticism of Slaughterhouse Five

in my entry titled "Vonnegut and Frankl," a fellow by the name of Chuckling and I had an interesting conversation about the differing reactions that Viktor Frankl and Kurt Vonnegut had to their experiences in World War II. Curious, they died roughly 10 years apart. A re-read of the conversation actually shows that Chuckling and I may have concluded that Frankl and Vonnegut may have agreed more than a surface of both their works may give.

I've just finished Slaughterhouse Five after having bought it yesterday. That's not typical of me, to read a 200 page book in probably really something like 6 or 7 hours. That's really all the time I had to read it. Finishing it this fast really comes as a surprise simply because I generally don't have the capability to fast as that. The wife can usually pull it off, but not so much me. So the book wins points from ease of reading that also allows for absorption of content.

It's not a spoiler that the book gets its name from the building that the main character was imprisoned in while captured by Nazis in Dresden. To some degree, however, Slaughterhouse Five reads like a more modern version of Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife and poems by William Carlos Williams.

The main character, Billy Pilgrim, becomes unstuck in time and at some point, gets kidnapped by aliens, put in a zoo and provided enlightenment by them. These aliens aren't apparently unstuck in time like Billy, but they perceive reality in four dimensions. So, essentially, Billy jumps through snippets of time from a moment where he's in World War II until his death. Unlike The Time Traveler's Wife, whereas the main character bodily transports in time and space, Billy switches his consciousness from one of his perceptions in time to another, sometimes retaining and sometimes not remembering his memories. Even after he dies, he simply transports back to an earlier version of himself. Vonnegut doesn't really do much to explain or really to allude to the mechanics of Billy's consciousness time exchanging with himself throughout his lifetime.

As a story with a plot or with emotion, Slaughterhouse Five didn't really grab me. I don't think it's meant to do so. The Time Traveler's Wife actually accomplished that job much better. Where the story didn't grip me with drama and feeling, however, the style and form of the book brought me in, pleasing me more on the level of aesthetics, form and theme. If any novel clearly showed its modernistic credentials, Slaughterhouse Five would be it.

With the protagonist being more of an observer retired to his fate than a character trying to do the right thing or aiming for glory, Slaughterhouse Five communicates a stark message, similar to Frankl's search for meaning, that becomes so much more vivid than some hero's exploits. The narrator shows his understanding of his own and the reader's consciousness of World War II's atrocities mixed with the ignorance of the characters experiencing the War, the virtues and vices of humanity and the semi-detached yet opinionated, the ambiguity of this phenomena's real existence and the serene acceptance of the protagonist seemingly learned from aliens except for a couple random instances of obscure emotionalism.

All of this understanding combines to create a surreal smack in the face, at least to people who believe in the truth of World War II's atrocities. And from this harsh impact comes questions and an answer: What's the point of it all if it's fated? Why live if just to die? What's the meaning? If there's no inherent meaning to life, what's the meaning to war? Why go to war? Does the meaning come in the form of people, their life, the various expressions of humanity, from good to bad, from virtuous to filled with vice? If it all ends with an experiment into alternative fuel, isn't it just absurd? If it's so absurd, why war? Don't we just make the meaning of this multifarious existence of ours? If so, if we create this meaning and have this power, then we only fight and war because we want it, it has something to do with our meaning making and make life feeling worthwhile. . .but aren't there other ways to do so without killing each other? But at the same time, all this multifarious existence of ours is kind of beautiful, no matter how it turns out. Sometimes it's just worth it to watch and appreciate the good things, like Billy right before the Americans and the Allies bomb Dresden to hell (the book provides a most certainly interesting statistic that concludes that the Dresden bombing had more casualties than the Hiroshima atomic bombing. Hmmmmm. . .).

Personally, I wouldn't put Slaughterhouse Five up there as one of the best books I've ever read, like a lot of people out there. If I had the choice to read it or The Time Traveler's Wife again, I think I would pick the latter. Time Traveler's Wife, however, comes many years after
Slaughterhouse Five and puts a twist on the plot device, making it more positive and possibly even more bittersweet. The emotional depth and realism to it most definitely wins out for me. On the other hand, Slaughterhouse Five has originality on it's side, more believable characters in all their variety, more of a global and even "enlightened" theme, a different mood and, on some level, more graceful and pleasurable language. I guess it all rather depends on my mood.


I have a forgiving community of friends and family who say that I feel guilty too much. Nonetheless, my current busyness (reach really translates to actually focusing and performing my duties at work, even though I would rather be at home, writing, blogging, researching, marketing my work and reading all the interesting stuff people have to say on their blogs and articles) and semi-incommunicado status makes me feel like such a recluse.

Maybe it isn't guilt that I feel but rather a sense of loneliness and fear of loss. Yes, not so deep inside me resides a shaky, insecure fellow who fears that people will disappear because of his irrelevance. But alas, there's the mature, healthy Adult me to bully the insecure me into submission, so I can get stuff done and live.

And, thankfully, I've started actually making some progress with my project after a month or so of floundering after the wedding. Yes, I've only written consistently for two days in a row and plan on seeing a movie in Grant Park tomorrow, but it's a start. Rome wasn't built in a day. . .a child doesn't instantly walk. . .etc. etc.

Well, I had better get back to working on that project!


Jeremy Roby said...

I've found that reviewing a Vonnegut novel (or even just trying to recommend it to a friend) is like trying to ride a bike without any pedals. You can't ever sum any of his stories up in one or two sentences. And trying to pull a moral out of them is equally futile. Still, I like his stuff.

The_Lex said...

Sometimes it's worth trying the impossible. I've yet to be utterly blown away by Vonnegut, but I have the feeling that it might have to do with my semi-jaded literary sensibilities that seeks more engrossing emotion.

Nonetheless, his aesthetics and experimentation make the novels worth reading.